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Virtualization Options for the Linux Desktop

VMWare vs. Virtualbox

  • February 16, 2009
  • By Matt Hartley

Virtualization was once thought to be something of a fad when it first began appearing on desktop PCs not all that long ago. And while no one ever said it outright, it was clear it was not taken seriously until its obvious cost savings -- particularly in hardware costs -- became self-evident.

Today, we see successes with virtualization from the server on down to the lowly desktop PC. Despite these successes, the question as to which virtualization or "VM solution," is best suited for the job on the desktop front remains largely unanswered. I certainly find this to be relevant for desktop Linux users who remain stuck with specific legacy Windows applications that really do not play well with WINE.

Given WINE's shortcomings, it's worthwhile to explore what desktop virtualization solutions work best with specific desktop Linux environments. Here's what I came up with.

VMWare -- At a price of $189 for the Linux Workstation version, some people consider this VM to be a costly option. Yet once potential users realize that VMWare Workstation is targeting professionals over the casual user, the cost suddenly seems like it has the ability to become a sound investment. VMWare Workstation provides a level of functionality for the end user unmatched by any other alternative out there to date.

Reasons for selecting VMWare over less costly alternatives include the fact that it offers mature code, provides consistently fast performance and advanced features that would likely not be sought after outside of the enterprise realm.

Key features include:

-- 32 or 64 bit support. This translates into a solid experience regardless of the architecture you choose to run with.

-- Virtual Machines or Virtual Teams. Unlike other lesser alternatives, VMWare is able to provide the enterprise user with the ability to simulate multi-tiered VM configurations.

-- Advanced deployment. For those who need to deploy virtual machines in a highly effective, rapid environment. In other words, you can roll out pre-packaged VMs quickly and easily thanks to VMware's ACE authoring capabilities.

-- USB 2.0 support. This is helpful when you need to print from a guest OS or even sync-up a devices into Outlook.

Best suited for?

Based on my experience with recent releases of VMWare Workstation running Windows on my desktop Linux boxes, I believe that VMWare is best suited for the enterprise user with support from their existing IT dept.

Despite my insistence of this product being best targeted at enterprise users, tech savvy non-enterprise users will find VMWare workstation to be a fine choice as well, despite its expense for casual home use.

VirtualBox -- Matching expected features from portability with a price tag that will meet with anyone's budget, clearly VirtualBox is worth considering.

With all of the highlights and positive vibes aside, there is room for confusion however. Namely: the mixed licensing, as VirtualBox is considered both open and closed source. The confusion comes from availability of both a standard edition in addition to a "community" edition. Only the community edition is truly using open source code only, while the standard edition is a mixed bag.

Everything considered however, most users could care less so long as the product is free and works safely as advertised.

Key features include (assuming the non-open source edition):

-- Guest installations made easy. For both Windows and Linux guest installs, I never had any installation issues to speak of.

-- Virtual USB. Last time I checked, USB did work...with a little extra effort for Ubuntu host users. If you are comfortable with opening up a shell, this will not be a problem.

-- Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP). Despite not being a fan of RDP myself, it is a benefit to the end user as it provides a secure remote desktop option for those looking to connect to a remote VirtualBox machine.

-- Shared folders. Again, like most VM software these days, VirtualBox does provide access to folders that can be used from both the guest and host OS.

-- Support for VMWare images. Perhaps more accurately, they can be successfully converted to VirtualBox images fairly easily. In either case, this is a nice feature to have.

Best suited for?

For Linux users, it would need to be made clear that USB support does take some configuration before it is ready to roll out of the box. Outside of this concern, VirtualBox does provide the kind of environment that leaves many people wondering why anyone even bothers with costly alternatives.

For my money...or lack there of, VirtualBox remains best suited for SoHo or home users as it is just not stable enough for serious enterprise use, in my honest opinion. It's close, but seeing new issues cropping up with each new release leaves me thinking that most IT departments would rather see VMware solutions in place over troubleshooting the latest broken function caused by a VirtualBox update.

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